Are Recession Risks Rising?

It is incredible that just a few months ago most analysts were expecting at least two if not three interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.  How quickly things change.  Markets are pricing in at least a couple of rate cuts by the FOMC while US Treasury yields have fallen sharply as growth concerns have intensified, even as the hard economic has not yet turned that bad.  Recession risks are once again being actively talked about as trade fears intensify, with President Trump threatening increased tariffs on both Mexico and China.  As I noted earlier this week, trade tensions have escalated.

Reflecting this, core bond markets have rallied sharply, with 10 year US Treasury yields dropping by around 60bps so far this year, while bund yields are negative out to 10 years.  Historically such a plunge would be associated with a sharp weakening in growth expectations and onset of recession.  However, equity markets are holding up better; the US S&P 500 has dropped around 6.8% from its highs but is still up close to 10% for the year.  Even Chinese equities are up close to 20% this year despite falling close to 13% from their highs.  Equities could be the last shoe to fall.

In currency markets the US dollar has come under pressure recently but is still stronger versus most currencies this year except notably Japanese and Canadian dollar among major currencies and the likes of Russian rouble and Thai baht among emerging market currencies.  On the other end of the spectrum Turkish lira and Argentine peso have fallen most, but their weakness has largely been idiosyncratic.  In a weaker growth environment, and one in which global trade is hit hard, it would be particularly negative for trade orientated EM economies and currencies.

The US dollar has a natural advantage compared to most major currencies at present in that it has a relatively higher yield. Anyone wishing to sell or go short would need to pay away this yield.  However, if the market is increasingly pricing in rate cuts, the USD looks like a much less attractive proposition and this is what appears to be happening now as investors offload long USD positions build up over past months.  Further USD weakness is likely at least in the short term, but it always hard to write the USDs resilience off.

Going forward much will of course depend on tariffs.  If President Trump implements tariffs on an additional $300 billion of Chinese exports to the US as he has threatened this would hurt global growth as would tariffs on Mexico.  Neither is guaranteed and could still be averted.  Even if these tariffs are implemented fears of recession still appear to be overdone.  Growth will certainly slow in the months ahead as indicated by forward looking indicators such manufacturing purchasing managers’ indices, but there is little in terms of data yet to suggest that recession is on the cards.

 

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US/China Tensions Escalate

Risk appetite starts the week in poor form. The shock announcement of 5% tariffs on all Mexican exports (from June 10) to the US and an intensification of tensions with China, have fuelled growing expectations of a worsening in the global growth outlook. Safe haven assets such as JPY and CHF are likely to remain in demand while core bond yields are likely to continue to move lower, with markets continuing to raise bets on Fed rate cuts this year.  Indeed the 10y US Treasury yield has dropped by 1.1% since 8 November last year, with the fall in yields accelerating over recent weeks.

US/China tensions escalated over the weekend, with the deputy head of China’s negotiating team, Wang Shouwen, accusing the US of “resorting to intimidation and coercion”.  This coincides with the increase in US tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods coming into effect over the weekend as Chinese shipments reached US shores, while earlier on Saturday Chinese tariffs on $60bn of US exports came into effect.  There is also growing speculation that China may curb exports of rare earth exports to the US.

Wang accused the US of abusing export controls and persisting with “exorbitant” demands and insisting on “mandatory requirements that infringe on China’s sovereign affairs”.   Meanwhile China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe, said that China will “fight to the end” on trade if needed.  China is also starting to investigate foreign companies who have violated Chinese law.  Soon after Chinese state media reported that the government was investigating FedEx for allegedly “undermining the legitimate rights and interest” of its Chinese clients.

Attention this week will be on several central bank decisions including the ECB (6th June), RBA (4th June) and RBI (6th June).  The market is fully priced in for an RBA rate cut to 1.25% this week.  The ECB is unlikely to surprise, with no change in policy likely.  Attention will be on terms of the TLTRO III while ECB President Draghi is likely to sound dovish in his press conference.  RBI is set to cut policy rates again, with Friday’s release of weaker than expected Q1 GDP adding to pressure on the Reserve Bank to boost growth amid low inflation.

Brexit – What next?

The drubbing that the main UK political parties (Conservatives and Labour) received in the European elections highlights the increasing polarisation of UK politics.  Both took a fudged view on how to go about Brexit while the remainers including the Lib Dems and the hard brexiters led by the newly formed Brexit Part, garnered most votes.  The outcome sends a clear signal of public frustration and impatience at the lack of progress in leaving the EU three years after the Brexit referendum.

A new leader of the Conservative party will likely steer towards a harder Brexit, but this may not resolve the impasse, something that has already brought down Prime Minister Theresa May.  In any case it is unlikely that the EU will want to renegotiate the terms of the Brexit deal agreed with May just because there is a new leader.  Divisions within the Conservative party itself continue to remain stark.  In the meantime Labour leader Corbyn is under pressure to make a clearer shift towards remaining in the EU.

Parliament meanwhile, has already voted against allowing a hard Brexit, suggesting that it is going to be extremely difficult to deliver a no deal or hard Brexit without fresh general elections.  However, as the European elections have shown, fresh UK general elections would spell doom for both the Conservatives and Labour unless they moved to harder stances on either side of the spectrum.  The Conservatives may not risk such an outcome.

This leaves a second referendum as an increasingly viable option, one which would put the question of remaining or a hard Brexit back to the public and out of the hands of parliament.  Indeed given the lack of alternatives and inability of parliament to move forward on Brexit, this may turn out to be the most prescient option although this runs risks of its own including fuelling demands for a fresh Scottish referendum.

GBP has continued to slide amid a clear lack of progress among politicians to arrive at a viable Brexit strategy and increasing risks of a hard Brexit.  However, if markets see a growing chance of a fresh referendum, GBPUSD could reverse some of its recent losses as remain hopes are rekindled, possibly breaking back above 1.30 at the least.   It is not by any means clear that remainers would win such a referendum, but at least they would have a chance that did not exist previously and that could be sufficient to give GBP a bounce.

Trump Threatens Tariffs Escalation

A trade deal between US and China appeared close to being agreed over recent weeks and markets had become rather sanguine about the issue. Indeed headlines over recent weeks had been encouraging, with both sides sounding conciliatory, and progress noted even on structural issues (technology theft, IP transfers, state subsidies, monitoring etc).  Against this background the tweets by President Trump yesterday that he may increase tariffs on $200bn of Chinese imports to 25% from 10% on Friday and add another $325bn to goods that are not currently covered “shortly”, were all the more disturbing. Maybe such comments should not be so surprising, however.

The tweets need to be put into perspective. There may be an element of posturing from. It fits Trump’s style of deal making.  In this case it appears that Trump and the China hawks in his administration are frustrated with the time taken to achieve a deal. Trump may also be emboldened to take a tougher stance by the resilience of the US economy, strength of US equity markets and limited impact on the US economy from current tariffs, though this would surely change if tariffs were ramped up. Trump may feel that such as gamble is worth it to take the deal across the line.

China’s reaction has been muted so far and talks this week in Washington may still be on, albeit with some delay.  Assuming that discussions do take place Trump may feel that he has the stronger hand especially as there is broad political and public support for a strong stance on China. He may feel that if he agrees to a deal too easily, he could lose support from his core supporters, hence he is now doubling down on his stance. Pressure on China to agree on a deal sooner rather than later has clearly intensified as a consequence, but I would still take earlier statements that both sides are moving closer to a deal at face value.

Admittedly the stakes are higher now, but I would not be surprised if at some point in the talks, assuming they take place, the US administration declares that progress is being made and that tariff escalation is once again delayed. After all, that’s what has happened previously. Markets would be relieved of course, and the consequences of failure would be higher given the new tariffs at stake, but at least it would buy more time for China to avoid facing a ramp up in tariffs.

Chinese renminbi (CNY) set to stay firm amid trade talks

Since the beginning of November, the onshore CNY and offshore CNH have strengthened by around 3.5% versus USD. Both are now trading at pivotal levels close to their 200 day moving averages. Their appreciation cannot be solely attributed to USD weakness, with the CNY CFETS trade weighted index appreciating by around 1.8% over same period. In other words China’s currency has outperformed many of its trading partners.

The relative strength of the CNY may be an effort by China to placate the US authorities ahead of trade talks. Indeed according to my estimate China has been selling USDCNY over the last few months, albeit not in large amounts. Interestingly China has not used the counter cyclical factor to push CNY lower as fixings have been stronger than market estimates only around 50% of the time over the last 3 months.

Much of the strengthening in the CNY move came after the US administration announced a pause in the trade war at the start of December, with a delay in the planned increase in tariffs from 10% to 25% on around half of Chinese exports to the US. The implication is that China does not want to antagonise the US administration with CNY weakness, despite the fact that recent Chinese trade numbers have been awful.

China had given itself some room to allow CNY appreciation by previously letting the currency fall by around 5.8% in trade weighted terms (from around 19 June 18 to end July 18) in the wake of the imposition of US tariffs. Its appreciation over recent weeks looks modest set against this background. As such CNY is likely to maintain a firm tone around the trade talks this week.

FX ‘Flash Crash’

Happy New Year! What a start its been so far.  Weak Chinese data kicked off the year yesterday, with a manufacturing sentiment gauge, the Caixin purchasing manager’s index (PMI), falling into contraction territory for the first time in 19 months, another sign of slowing growth in China’s economy.  This was echoed by other manufacturing PMIs, especially those of trade orientated countries in Asia.   Taking a look at global emerging market PMIs reveals a picture of broadly slowing growth.

Lack of progress on the trade front despite positive noises from both the US and China, and no sign of an ending of the US government shut down are similarly weighing on sentiment as are concerns about slowing US economic growth and of course Fed rate hikes.  The latest contributor to market angst is the lowering of Apple’s revenue outlook, with the company now expecting sales of around $84bn in the quarter ending Dec 29 from earlier estimates of $89bn to $93bn.

All of this and thin liquidity, with a Japanese holiday today and many market participants not back from holidays, contributed to very sharp moves in FX markets.  The biggest mover was the JPY, which surged, leading to an appreciation of around 7.7% versus the AUD at one point and strong gains against other currencies.  Some have attributed algorithmic platform pricing to the sharp FX moves today, but whatever the reason, it shows that markets are on edge.

Although US equity markets closed in positive territory yesterday (barely), the above factors suggest another day in the red for equity markets and risk assets today.  While the JPY has retraced some its sharp gains, it and other safe haven assets such as CHF and US Treasuries are likely to find firm demand in the current environment.   Although I would not suggest extrapolating early year trading too far into the future, the volatility in the first two trading days of the year will be concerning for investors after a painful 2018. More pain in the weeks ahead should not be ruled out.

 

Not much good news

There are a plethora of issues weighing on asset markets though sentiment has improved slightly today.  Weak Chinese trade data over the weekend and a revision lower to Japanese GDP data yesterday added to growing global growth concerns, against the background of waning hopes of a resolution to the US-China trade war.

US administration comments that there was a hard deadline for trade talks have not helped sentiment either.  News today that Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke with US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and US Trade Rep Lighthizer on a timetable and road map on trade talks provided some relief, however.

In the US, growth expectations are undergoing a shift and talk of a Fed pause is growing.  This would be considered as good news for EM if it wasn’t for the fact that a pause could be due to US growth concerns rather than any sense that the Fed was approaching its terminal rate.  US November CPI, retail sales, and industrial production data will give more clues, but I still think the Fed policy rates next week.

In the UK, Brexit worries have intensified following the decision by Prime Minister May to the delay the vote on a deal in parliament given she would most likely would have faced a defeat had it gone ahead.  May will now go on a tour of European capitals to try to improve the Brexit deal but prospects don’t look good, especially as European Council president Tusk has already ruled out any negotiation of the deal and in particular the Irish backstop.

GBP was pummeled as a result of the delay and will continue to struggle in the short term given the lack visibility.  A revised deal appears difficult while a hard Brexit and even a new referendum are all on the table.

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